Well-intended, but poorly executed public policy seems more inclined to limit California and U.S. agriculture growth and efficiency with conflicting environmental and social agendas than to encourage investment in American farming.
If that continues, according to Stuart Woolf, president of Woolf Enterprises, a family-owned diversified Fresno County, Calif., farming and processing operation, America will lose its place as an agricultural world leader.
Woolf told the California Agriculture Symposium in Sacramento, Calif., recently that if domestic farm policy does not change, it will drive agricultural investments to China, India, Turkey, Brazil and others wanting to become "incubators" for agricultural growth.
"If I wanted to be a cotton farmer today, I would go to Brazil," said Woolf. Brazil has strong governmental agricultural support and 200 million acres for agricultural development. Some of the largest farming operations in the world are in Brazil."
While that is going on in Brazil and elsewhere, U.S. farm policy "favors notions of sustainable (small organic growers) over sustainable growth (diversification and scale)," noted Woolf in remarks prepared for the symposium.
Woolf’s parents, Jack and Bernice Woolf founded the family farm in 1974 with 2,500 acres, primarily as a cotton operation. It has gone away from cotton and now produces non-farm program crops, including processing tomatoes, garlic, onions, almonds, pistachios and wine grapes. The Woolf family also is partners in a tomato processing plant, almond processor, ginning company and an irrigation related business.
It has invested in more than 10,000 acres of drip irrigation for both permanent and row crop land. Woolf said that will increase.
Woolf identifies the family farm as "early adopters and developers of new farm implements and technology" to improve efficiencies and quality.
He remains optimistic in the short term, looking to advances in information systems, electronics, seed varieties, and materials to better manage resources.
Longer term prospects for Woolf Farming "is a bit more uncertain."
Although the California and the U.S. enjoy some of the best natural resources, weather, land-grant colleges and Extension services, marketing orders and a sound infrastructure, "policy makers appear to be less committed to agriculture’s future." Basic ag research and ag Extension seem to be the first casualties in budget cuts.
"It seems as though agriculture no longer enjoys a strong public commitment, in great part, because industry leaders have not provided a clear, long-term vision that the public finds of value. That hasn’t always been the case."
Woolf called on agriculture to craft a long-term vision and stop fighting "never-ending series of short-term battles over resources and regulations."
Public sentiment has turned against agriculture with attacks by organizations like the Environmental Working Group, which has publicly and loudly singled out Woolf Enterprises as examples of excess federal farm program payments and water subsidies.
"Personally, I don’t begrudge EWG or the press for raising issues impacting taxpayers," said Woolf, who added he would like to see continued progress in future farm bills that would "encourage greater farm efficiencies while ensuring fair trade."
He would also like to see a "true accounting" of the "subsidies" farmers receive from the federal government.
For example, Woolf estimates the federal water subsidy on his family’s farm amounts to $500,000 per year while Woolf Enterprises pays $4 million in taxes; has a $13 million annual payroll and pays out assessments and fees totaling $1 million.
"I would say that is a heck of a return to the taxpayers," said Woolf.
"California and the U.S. now enjoy the strongest ag economy in the world yet we run the risk of losing this position to others more keenly interested in sustainable development," he concluded.